Luis Carlos Cervantes was shot three times on August 13, 2014 on his way to pick up his son from school. Prior to his murder, Mr. Cervantes received several threats warning him to leave the region of Bajo Cauca, Antioquia. These threats were not new for Mr. Cervantes. The thirty-year-old journalist first started receiving threats four years ago for denouncing corruption rings within the local government. Nevertheless, the Colombian government revoked Mr. Cervantes’s protection scheme on July 24, 2014. According to the National Protection Unit (Unidad Nacional de Protección, UNP), the protection scheme was lifted because “there was not a causal relationship between the threats received by Mr. Cervantes and his work as a journalist.” His murder is a great loss and a tragic demonstration of the lack of guarantees for people that denounce corruption, violence and oppression in Colombia.
In 2010, Mr. Cervantes reported on electoral fraud in the mayoral elections of Tarazá, Antioquia. Shortly afterwards he received threats from the Urabeños paramilitary group that received orders from local government officials to intimidate him. Mr. Cervantes was forcibly displaced out of Tarazá with his wife and son, but the Urabeños followed him to Arboledas, Antioquia where he had family. Given the lack of guarantees for his security in Arboledas, the family returned to their home in Tarazá. Back in Tarazá, Mr. Cervantes received more death threats at his home, which was located across the street from the police station. Due to the threats, Mr. Cervantes stopped practicing investigative journalism and shifted to hosting music programs on the radio. Nevertheless, on July 21, 2014 – three days before his protective measures were lifted – an unknown man found Mr. Cervantes at the radio station and told him “they were tired of seeing him in Tarazá.” On July 22, he received a text message that said he had two hours to leave the municipality. Less than three weeks later Mr. Cervantes was murdered.
The UNP’s rationale for lifting Mr. Cervantes’s protection scheme may seem absurd or like an atypical oversight, but it is not. Threatened organizations, communities, and leaders throughout the Colombia have repeatedly expressed their discontent with the effectiveness of the UNP. This situation has been especially alarming in black communities. For example, UNP Director Andres Villamizar’s first reaction to the February 2013 murder of Demetrio López was to pronounce via twitter that Mr. López never denounced the threats against him. However, the truth was that Mr. López clearly denounced the threats against him before the Attorney General’s Office in Buenaventura six months prior to his murder. Mr. López was in the midst of a campaign to become the legal representative of the Afro-Colombian Community Council of La Caucana. However, powerful individuals with ties to large-scale development projects succeeded in blocking Mr. Lopez’s election. In the aftermath of his murder, part of the community has acquiesced to the interests that opposed Mr. Lopez’s political project, and some of his closest allies have been forced into hiding or murdered. Mr. Roque Alfredo Riascos Trujillo, a close friend and colleague of Mr. López, was forced into hiding over a year ago. Thanks to international support and an initial protection scheme from the UNP, Mr. Riascos was able to escape threats on his life and leave Buenaventura. However, Mr. Riascos remains in hiding and the UNP now avoids his phone calls and e-mails instead of providing him with protection. He receives no support from any Colombian government institution in spite of his diligent efforts to achieve justice and receive humanitarian assistance.
The UNP’s most typical protection scheme for threatened leaders includes a bulletproof vest, a cellular phone with a limited plan, and a transportation stipend. In the last two months, a group of Afro-Colombian leaders in northern Cauca received a round of death threats that were sent to their personal cell phones. They were threatened because of their opposition to illegal mines in the region. Given the circumstances of the threats against them, the leaders did not find the aforementioned protection scheme adequate, but it was what the UNP offered them. Instead, these leaders called for collective protective measures that would provide safety for themselves and their communities. However, the UNP denied their request in spite of clear inadequacies in the typical protection scheme. For example, many of the regions where leaders receive cell phones do not have signal, and a 2013 investigative report revealed that the UNP was disbursing expired bulletproof vests to threatened leaders in the Afro-Colombian Community Council of Curvaradó.
On the occasion of Mr. Cervantes’s murder, the UNP is once again distancing itself from any responsibility. The truth of the matter is that the UNP’s policy is deeply flawed and it has failed on several counts. However, the UNP has been extraordinarily successful in diverting conversation away from the structural issues that lead to threats and dangers for rights defenders. Rights defenders are threatened because of their critical work in denouncing and resisting government policies, development projects, corruption rings, and violence. However, conversations in Colombia and internationally in regards to threatened individuals now revolve around bulletproof vests and armored cars instead of bringing the intellectual authors and trigger pullers behind the threats to justice. Rights defenders deserve protection and justice—not empty promises.
*ACSN includes Global Rights, Chicago Religious Leadership Network (CRLN), the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), International Working Group of PCN, Colombia Land Rights Monitor, and activists and scholars Joseph Jordan, Eunice Escobar, Ajamu Baraka, Naila Rosario, Tianna Paschel, Arturo Escobar, and Nicole Lee (Lee Bayard Group). Peace Brigades International (PBI) serves as an international observer.